Cre­at­ing a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion in the work­place

Man­agers of­ten see in­no­va­tion as sim­ply the search for the next big idea, but for real and last­ing in­no­va­tion to take place, a sec­ond com­po­nent is of crit­i­cal im­por­tance – the im­ple­men­ta­tion of those ideas.

Finweek English Edition - - NEWS - By Wil­lie Visser

in­no­va­tion holds the key to long-term busi­ness sur­vival and suc­cess, and com­pa­nies know and ac­cept this in­tu­itively. To se­cretly hope that in some mys­te­ri­ous way your com­pany will one morn­ing sim­ply be­come in­no­va­tive is wish­ful think­ing.

In­no­va­tion won’t hap­pen on its own. In­no­va­tion – re­ferred to as the in­tro­duc­tion of new and im­proved ways of do­ing things at work – needs to be in­ten­tional, de­lib­er­ate and planned for, ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle in The Lead­er­ship Quar­terly by Lan­caster Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Michael West and his col­leagues.

From this def­i­ni­tion of in­no­va­tion we can de­duce that in­no­va­tive be­hav­iours are pur­pose­ful be­hav­iours that will de­mand en­ergy, pos­i­tiv­ity and com­mit­ment from all lev­els of staff to make it hap­pen.

In­no­va­tion is closely re­lated to the kind of or­gan­i­sa­tional cul­ture that the lead­er­ship team of a com­pany man­ages to es­tab­lish. In his book The Cor­po­rate Cul­ture Sur­vival Guide, Edgar Schein de­scribes an or­gan­i­sa­tion’s cul­ture as the shared val­ues, be­liefs and prac­tices of the peo­ple within the or­gan­i­sa­tion – it re­flects the way in which they go about con­duct­ing their day-to-day busi­ness.

An idea is just the be­gin­ning

In work­ing with var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions around the cre­ation of a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion, I un­cov­ered sev­eral shared val­ues, be­liefs and prac­tices around in­no­va­tion. We know that an or­gan­i­sa­tion’s cul­ture is cre­ated by what man­agers talk about, what they em­pha­sise and what they mea­sure. It is by this very same process that an in­no­va­tive cul­ture is cre­ated.

If I lis­ten to man­agers talk­ing about in­no­va­tion in their or­gan­i­sa­tions, I of­ten hear them em­pha­sis­ing one word, and that is “ideas”. Con­sider how of­ten we hear our ex­ec­u­tives say: “We want our peo­ple to come up with new and in­no­va­tive ideas.” Al­though an im­por­tant part of in­no­va­tion, it is un­for­tu­nately only half of the story. In­no­va­tion can be thought of as two re­lated pro­cesses. The first part of in­no­va­tion is com­ing up with new ideas – ideas that will even­tu­ally ben­e­fit the or­gan­i­sa­tion; ideas that will im­prove the way in which peo­ple do their work or serve their clients; ideas that will in­tro­duce that new prod­uct that will take your busi­ness to the next level of per­for­mance.

The sec­ond part of in­no­va­tion, and by far the most dif­fi­cult part, has to do with the im­ple­men­ta­tion of those new ideas. So we can see that by only em­pha­sis­ing the im­por­tance of ideas, man­agers in­ad­ver­tently in­flu­ence their employees to de­velop mind­sets which equate in­no­va­tion merely with “ideas”. In do­ing so, man­agers form a lop­sided cul­ture around in­no­va­tion. To­day, man­agers mostly talk about the im­por­tance of employees shar­ing their ideas for im­prove­ment; they even go so far as to mea­sure the num­ber of ideas per em­ployee or per work group and re­ward employees for the voic­ing of their ideas.

How­ever, to be suc­cess­ful in cre­at­ing an in­no­va­tive cul­ture, man­agers should start to talk about, mea­sure and re­ward the suc­cess­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion of new ideas. Only then can we talk of a truly in­no­va­tive cul­ture. A com­pany with a thou­sand bril­liant ideas is just that – a com­pany with a thou­sand bril­liant ideas. On their own, ideas will not add value to the com­pany. It is the im­ple­men­ta­tion of those ideas that will bring about the added value.

When I ask man­agers and employees to talk to me about what they understand by the word “in­no­va­tion” in their com­pany, most of their an­swers re­flect the im­pres­sion that in­no­va­tion is all about the next “big idea” – be it a prod­uct, a sys­tem or any other big thing

By only em­pha­sis­ing the im­por­tance of ideas, man­agers in­ad­ver­tently in­flu­ence their employees to de­velop mind­sets which equate in­no­va­tion merely with “ideas”.

that will help the com­pany be­come more prof­itable. In­no­va­tion is thought of as the do­main of a few clever peo­ple sit­ting some­where in some quiet part of the or­gan­i­sa­tion where they work on that next “big idea”.

Cre­ate a crit­i­cal mass

If we want to es­tab­lish a truly in­no­va­tive cul­ture, we should change our mind­set about in­no­va­tion through­out the or­gan­i­sa­tion so that ev­ery­one (man­agers and employees) understand that in­no­va­tion is not the do­main of a priv­i­leged few, but that in­no­va­tion is about mo­bil­is­ing the in­no­va­tive po­ten­tial of ev­ery em­ployee in the busi­ness.

We need a crit­i­cal mass of our peo­ple to think about the busi­ness, to be aware of where and how things could be changed for the bet­ter, and to be will­ing to take the ini­tia­tive, not only to pro­vide us with a so­lu­tion (idea) but to ac­tu­ally take that idea right through to its im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Clearly in­no­va­tion is not only about the next “big idea”; it also refers to the ev­ery­day in­no­va­tive work be­hav­iours of all employees suggest­ing and im­ple­ment­ing ideas that are smaller in scale, more com­mon and more non-tech­no­log­i­cally driven. It is about iden­ti­fy­ing those an­noy­ing has­sles that we en­counter on a daily ba­sis and fix­ing them.

Lastly, I found that most employees think their role in the in­no­va­tion process is to come up with new ideas and that it is the role of the man­ager to im­ple­ment those ideas.

By hav­ing this mind­set we run into many prob­lems, such as:

Employees do not de­velop the dis­ci­pline and skill set that

goes along with the im­ple­men­ta­tion of ideas. We re­duce the ac­count­abil­ity of employees – since they can

pro­vide an idea and then walk away from it. Real learn­ing and tal­ent de­vel­op­ment does not take place –

since learn­ing comes from im­ple­men­ta­tion. We add to the bur­den of man­age­ment – they now sit with the

added pres­sure of im­ple­ment­ing ideas. We cre­ate a cul­ture of help­less­ness – since employees in­vari­ably get lit­tle feed­back about what hap­pened with their ideas. They then de­velop the mind­set that it is of no use to come up with ideas be­cause they don’t ma­te­ri­alise. From the points above we see that we can­not sep­a­rate the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of idea sug­ges­tion and im­ple­men­ta­tion. We need to find a place where there is joint re­spon­si­bil­ity for the voic­ing of ideas and the im­ple­men­ta­tion thereof.

In suc­cess­ful in­no­va­tion cul­tures we see in­no­va­tion is sup­ported by an in­no­va­tive en­vi­ron­ment that is re­in­forced and sus­tained by in­di­vid­ual lead­er­ship prac­tices that start at the first line of man­age­ment and go right through to the top of the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

It is about iden­ti­fy­ing those an­noy­ing has­sles that we en­counter on a daily ba­sis and fix­ing them.

Dr Wil­lie Visser Di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Pos­i­tive Peo­ple @ Work, Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity

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